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Latin America – a new popular & progressive wave sweeping across the region. By David Raby.

“You wouldn’t know it from the mainstream media, but Latin America has witnessed remarkable democratic & social advances in recent months, despite some setbacks.”

By David Raby

You wouldn’t know it from the mainstream media, but Latin America has witnessed remarkable democratic and social advances in recent months, despite some setbacks.

In Chile, sustained mass protest in the face of brutal repression last year forced the right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera to authorise elections to a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the Pinochet-era constitution. When these elections were held in April they returned a large majority for a variety of old and new left forces. The Assembly proceeded to choose a progressive indigenous woman, Elisa Loncón, as its Chair.

Subsequent regional elections were also a triumph for the left, boding well for the general elections due in November.

In Peru, a country in profound economic and social crisis with (among other things) one of the worst Covid infection and death rates in the world, a remarkably progressive working-class candidate, Pedro Castillo, won the second-round runoff election in June by a whisker, and was inaugurated as President on July 28th.

Castillo, a rural school teacher, surprised observers by defeating far-right candidate Keiko Fujimori (daughter of a former dictator) and overcoming all anti-democratic shenanigans designed to stop him.

By building a broad and diverse coalition he has overcome stereotypes and inspired hope for millions. Refusing to live in the luxurious presidential palace, he says he will live on his teacher’s salary, making him the head of state with the most modest income in the world.

Castillo’s position is far from secure: at the time of writing, after just three weeks in office, his Foreign Minister Héctor Béjar, a sprightly 86-year-old veteran from a left government of the early 1970s, has been forced to resign by pressure from the extreme right and the Armed Forces.

Béjar had set forth a bold new foreign policy agenda favouring regional unity, promoting UNASUR (the South American Union), CELAC (the Community of Latin American & Caribbean States), rejecting blockades, sanctions and interventionism (a direct repudiation of US meddling), and working with progressive governments in Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Mexico, Argentina and Bolivia.

This was a total reversal of Peru’s right-wing alignment of previous decades, and proved too much for the country’s racist, elitist and plutocratic establishment which was in any case reluctant to accept the new government. Béjar’s resignation left the government in crisis, but after a tense three-day interlude Castillo was able to appoint a career diplomat, Oscar Maúrtua, as the new Foreign Minister. While not a leftist, Maúrtua has declared his allegiance to Castillo as “the legitimate President elected by the Peruvian people”, and has impeccable democratic credentials. 

Castillo’s government has indicated a desire to work closely with its neighbour Bolivia, where last October popular pressure restored democracy after a brutal short-lived dictatorship. Elections in Bolivia had installed the left-wing economist Luis Arce, trained at the University of Warwick, as President with an agenda to restore the socialist agenda of popular ex-president Evo Morales.

A crucial factor here is the association of both Bolivia and Castillo’s Peru with Mexico and Argentina, two regional giants which have come together in the past two years in a bold strategic alliance.

Mexico and Argentina played a key role in supporting Bolivia’s return to democracy, and they have been outspoken in criticising the right-wing interventionist role of the OAS (Organisation of American States, the regional body dominated by Washington).

Mexico and Argentina are prime movers in the Puebla Group, an association of progressive intellectuals, politicians and governments which is promoting democracy, peace and cooperation while avoiding open conflict with the US. An example of their approach is the agreement signed last year for the Astra-Zeneca Covid vaccine to be manufactured under licence in Mexico and Argentina, and they have begun distributing it free of charge to poorer regional countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Bolivia, Paraguay and Haiti.

Several of Pedro Castillo’s early measures in Peru seem inspired by similar actions taken previously by AMLO (Andrés Manuel López Obrador) in Mexico and Alberto Fernández in Argentina. Thus AMLO slashed his presidential salary and turned the luxurious presidential palace into a museum & community centre, as Castillo is now doing.

Like AMLO and Fernández, Castillo has made health care a top priority; all three countries have recognised access to free universal care as a basic human right, and are working to overcome the appalling legacy of decades of neoliberal privatisation of health care. This should be a sobering lesson to us in the UK as our Tory government works to undermine the NHS.

Along with Bolivia, these countries are also investing in social programmes for the elderly, for students and young people, for the indigenous population and other marginalised sectors, while departing from leftist orthodoxy by neither raising taxes nor assuming more public debt.

They have done this (and the pioneer in this respect was AMLO in Mexico) by slashing excessive government expenses, clamping down on tax evasion, and fighting corruption beginning from the top. Their logic is that debt servicing cuts into revenue for social services and public investment, and debt makes governments vulnerable to pressure, indeed blackmail, from global financial interests: another point that could be relevant for a future Labour government here.

The Puebla Group is also having a significant impact in foreign policy. Particularly impressive, given its 3,000 km border with the US, is Mexico’s approach in dealing with its northern neighbour. AMLO has from the beginning sought dialogue and constructive relations in trade, investment, migration and legal matters. Many were confused by his positive relationship with Trump, but he was simply reviving Mexico’s longstanding tradition of non-intervention and respect for sovereignty, which works both ways. Mexico would show respect and fair dealing with its neighbour, regardless of who was President, and expected the same in return.

Good relations have continued with the Biden administration, and indeed have improved in some areas. Mexico (and the Puebla Group as a whole) have not identified uncritically with the revolutionary governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, but they have taken principled, and indeed bold, stands in defence of their own sovereignty and that of Latin America as a whole. Mexico’s dramatic rescue of Evo Morales from the Bolivian coup in October 2019 can now be seen as a precedent for its decisive stand in defence of Cuba and against the blockade in July-August 2021.

AMLO did not mince words: on July 12th, just after the US-sponsored protests began in Cuba, he declared: “If they want to help Cuba, the first thing to do is suspend the blockade!…We express our solidarity with the Cuban people, without hesitation!”

This was swiftly followed by Mexico sending two naval vessels with much-needed supplies to Havana. AMLO also made it clear that his stance on Cuba is only part (although a crucial part) of a much broader and very ambitious vision for Latin America and the Caribbean and their future relationship with the US.

On July 24th – the birthday of the great Venezuelan liberator Simón Bolívar – AMLO held a landmark public ceremony with representatives of 31 countries from the region. In a remarkable speech he recalled the history of US aggression against Mexico and other countries, and repudiated blockades, sanctions or interventions of any kind.

He also reiterated Bolivar’s vision of Latin American unity and its ongoing relevance. But equally he appealed to the democratic ideals of the United States, and argued that the region could not continue to allow its relations with the northern hegemon to be characterised forever by the alternatives of submission or defensive opposition.

            It was time, he said, for dialogue with the US and to convince them that a new relationship is possible, based on sovereignty and respect, in which the entire Western hemisphere can advance together. Indeed, given the unstoppable rise of China, it is in the interests of the US to seek a peaceful and cooperative relationship with all its neighbours.

            With less fanfare, Mexico continues to take concrete actions to promote an agenda of democracy and cooperation. Thus on 13-14 August it hosted talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition, with Norway acting as mediator. This produced an initial “memorandum of understanding”, with a second session scheduled for early September: more than had been achieved in years of futile confrontation.

            Of course the right wing – indeed the extreme right – continues to be active across Latin America, with dire consequences. Repression in Colombia is unrelenting despite months of heroic mass protests. The brutal assassination of Haiti’s President, carried out by Colombian paramilitaries hired by an obscure network based in Florida and headed by a right-wing Venezuelan, highlights the grotesque intermingling of narco-criminality, neo-Nazi politics and imperialist interests which can be a threat to any progressive government.

In some respects US President Biden seems to have become a prisoner of the Trumpian Florida mafia, and has turned the screws further on Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. In Brazil, the real giant of Latin America, extreme-right President Bolsonaro continues to lay waste to the country and threatens to suspend next year’s elections, but the signs are that he will fail and that ex-President Lula of the Workers’ Party may return to power.

There is a new popular and progressive wave sweeping across the region (not before time), and this should be a source of inspiration for us in Europe as well.

  • David Raby is a retired professor of Latin American Studies at Toronto and Liverpool, and is now active in Norwich South CLP. He can be reached at david.raby@hotmail.com and on Twitter @DLRaby.

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